Con artists are the worst kind of people: They manipulate the most basic of human emotions for a personal financial gain that results in the destruction of reputations, families and lives.
So, naturally, we love watching them.
Think about it for a moment: How many con men/women/children have you encountered? I’m not talking about emails from a Nigerian prince or the mechanic you’re not sure whether you trust, I mean a full-blown, “I’m going to sell a marching band to a small Iowa town” con. If you’re an unlucky person, the answer is one; if you’re the unluckiest person in the world, the answer is three.
But how many con artists have you seen in fiction? Much like superheroes, assassins and talking animals, there is a disproportionate number of cons in the fictional world versus the real world, which points to the conclusion that there is something about these people that we find entertaining. So entertaining, in fact, that we’re willing to overlook that these people make their living by stealing from innocent, hard-working folks.
I can’t say I’m not guilty. USA’s “White Collar,” which returned Tuesday, is one of my favorite shows and features a lead who lies, forges and steals on the regular.
Now most of the time, unlike their real-life counterparts, fictional con artists usually have a moral compass, rarely stealing from those who don’t “have it coming.” The Music Man doesn’t end up going through with his con. “Collar”<2009>’s Neal Caffrey only conned big, mean heads of investment firms and art museums before he got caught; now he helps the FBI solve crimes with his guile and fashion sense. Danny Ocean steals from Terry Benedict in “Ocean’s 11,” but it’s OK because Benedict isn’t nice enough to date Julia Roberts.
But a heart of gold does not entertainment make, otherwise Ty Pennington would just play every character ever and things would be pretty boring. What is it that draws us to these professional liars?
My theory? It’s their confidence. Not the confidence implied in the name “con artist” — referring to theidence they instill in their prey — but rather the confidence that is a character trait. Confidence is a magnet for attention, affection and intrigue (and also explains the one guy at everyone’s high school who had a girlfriend way out of his league); there’s no more confident a character than a con artist. They have to be confident, otherwise their marks would see through the cons — and nobody wants to read the book about the unsuccessful con who gets beat up a lot. Everything they do is planned three moves in advance; they’re cool, relaxed and smooth; there’s a strong chance they’re wearing a fedora.
And we love it. And forget that they’re kind of awful people. Some con, hmm?
Andy has started writing a novel about an unsuccessful con who gets beat up a lot. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.